DOHA, Qatar — To make it into the game, the Saudi soccer enthusiast resorted to unconventional steps.
He flew to Kuwait, where he informed his parents that he was going on holiday. He then boarded a plane to Qatar, the website of a significant football championship this week. Officially, this is a forbidden travel: for two years Saudi Arabia has directed a rigorous diplomatic and trade embargo of Qatar, and its own citizens are barred from traveling .
However, the subterfuge and secrecy used by the enthusiast, Majed al-Qahtani, 29, proven to be unnecessary. The bitter standoff from the Persian Gulf has softened recently amid a sudden flurry of peace talks between Saudi and Qatari leaders.
Founded in Qatar, Mr. al-Qahtani discovered hundreds of other Islamic football lovers, all mingling easily with their Qatari hosts, seemingly using a wink and nod by their administration — the most visible sign yet of a recent thaw between the oil-rich nations.
“The battle is a problem involving authorities,” he said, sitting at the lobby of this elaborate hotel where his sports personalities were remaining. “Believe me, average individuals don’t have any difficulties with one another. We’re brothers.”
Qatari and Saudi officials have begun talks to end the embargo, that has blocked Qatar’s airplanes from flying over its Gulf neighbors and closed its only land boundary, together with Saudi Arabia.
Last weekend President Trump’s daughter and senior advisor, Ivanka Trump, attended a significant conference in Doha, Qatar’s capital, as did the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who advocated that the two sides to fix fences. One of Gulf pros and western officials, speculation has been rife about potential concessions like easing airspace limitations on Qatar, or even reopening the border with Saudi Arabia.
All sides worry that the talks are somewhat undependable, and there are indications that the Saudis’ most important ally, the United Arab Emirates, is much less responsive to softening its position. Nonetheless, the talks would be the most promising introduction nonetheless, and football has rushed into the breach.
“We are hoping that this will end soon, possibly in a few months,” said Saud Khalid, a 25-year-old Saudi paramedic, that had been at the racks of Khalifa International Stadium at Doha on Tuesday night. “The air in both states is getting more optimistic.”
Behind himanother Saudi enthusiast jumped to his feet and hauled aloft a Muslim invasion — an unthinkable sight in Qatar just last summer.
Football and diplomacy are tightly intertwined from the Gulf, in which the planet’s most popular game has become a conduit for those ambitions, political influences and intrigues of jousting Gulf rulers. As the leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have splurged vast amounts on the world’s most expensive paintings or on building elegant museums, so has soccer become the focus of a kind of sports arms race.
In January 2018, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, permitted women to attend soccer matches, the first concrete step in a series of reforms aimed at loosening the kingdom’s ultraconservative laws and social codes, such as allowing women to drive and permitting cinemas to open.
Political passions sometimes spilled onto the field. When Qatar played the United Arab Emirates in the Asian Cup last January, Emirati fans flung their shoes at celebrating Qatari players after they scored a goal. When Qatar thrashed North Korea 6-0 in another match, only one supporter in the near-empty stadium was wearing Qatar’s colors: a woman from South Korea.
Prince Mohammed has not hesitated to use soccer as a tool to advance his regional rivalries.
In September, the world soccer body, FIFA, said it had proof that a Saudi company had been pirating the television stream of beIN Sports, a Qatari state-owned company that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for the exclusive TV rights to major soccer matches in the Middle East.
The furor over the pirate Saudi service, known as beoutQ, peaked in 2018 when it stole and broadcast the World Cup across the Middle East, costing the Qatari company a fortune in lost revenues. When FIFA tried to sue beoutQ in the Saudi courts, it could not find a Saudi lawyer willing to represent it.
The competition in Qatar this week, the Club World Cup, is a dry-run of sorts for Qatar’s effort to host the World Cup in 2022 — an immense coup for a tiny country of 300,000 citizens, and one which demonstrates its ambition to use its vast gas wealth to project its image on the global stage. Inevitably, the 2022 competition was sucked into the confrontation between Qatar and its larger neighbors.
After the regional crisis erupted in 2017, with Qatar’s foes accusing it of financing terrorism and interfering in their domestic affairs, charges Qatar denies, Emirati ministers called on FIFA to strip Qatar of the World Cup. In London, well-financed lobbying efforts with links to Qatar’s rivals started a campaign that amplified concerns over workers’ rights in Qatar, as well as accusations that Qatari officials paid extravagant bribes in order to win the right to host the World Cup.
In 2014, the United Arab Emirates hired a former National Security Agency analyst to hack the computers of Qatari and FIFA officials in the hope of finding damaging information about Qatar’s World Cup bid, Reuters reported last week. The hacker tried to lure targets, including the head of Qatar’s World Cup coordination body, with a phishing scam featuring attractive “World Cup girls,” Reuters said.
In recent months, as tensions have begun to ease between Qatar and its neighbors, the change has also been seen on the soccer field.
The thaw started in October when, at the 11th hour, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain allowed their soccer teams to travel to Qatar to play in the Arabian Gulf Cup. When Saudi Arabia beat Qatar 1-0, no shoes were thrown. When Bahrain won the competition, the emir of Qatar presented the team with the cup.
After a top Qatari player took a Saudi player for a friendly car ride, a video of the ride went viral.
When he slipped into Qatar last weekend, Mr. al-Qahtani along with his friend Khaled al-Anqari mingled in Souk Wakif, a popular district in central Doha with jeweled cafes, falcon traders and buildings festooned with giant images of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
They befriended a 19-year old Qatari, Tamim al-Marri, who encouraged them for dates and coffee, then brought them into his house for a meal. “They’re our cousins and our brothers,” explained Mr. al-Marri, a military trainee.
Such hot experiences are a stark contrast with the first months of this catastrophe, when Qataris and Saudis insulted every other using harsh speech on social networking. Now, however, some say they’re turning away from social networking feeds which are frequently controlled by their own authorities.
“I believe societal media is controlled by the intellect,” Mr. al-Qahtani explained. “You see, the terminology is changing. It’s become thicker.”
Though their existence in Qatar was technically illegal, both young Saudis weren’t concerned about repercussions in the home.
If contested about the excursion, Mr. al-Anqari explained,”I might say I moved to encourage my group Al Hilal from the World Cup.”
That day, they attended the semifinal game between Al Hilal along with a Brazilian group, Flamengo. On the road there, a bunch of boisterous Brazilian lovers at Doha’s new metro ribbed the Saudis, at a stage picking up Mr. al-Qahtani and hoisting him onto their shoulders.
Al Hilal lost. The young Saudis said they’d remain in Doha throughout the championship final on Saturday. As soon as they get home, they explained, they will tell their families where they’ve been.